(forest fires burning in Portugal, where an estimated fifty people have died)
As you may know, forest fires recently went raging through northern California. They were moving at twenty-three feet a second, throwing fire balls out a mile ahead of themselves; 5,500 people lost homes and businesses, and 100,000 people were displaced. Abhayagiri monastery, sitting in the midst of this, was evacuated just before the fire reached the area ... A few days later, the community were given the all-clear to return – to find that although neighbouring properties had been torched, the monastery was unscathed. Firefighters were in awe and couldn't understand why the flames had swept down the hillside, touched the two-foot wide trail that circles the monastery – and turned back. For a Buddhist devotee, there's a simple explanation: the monastery, originally gifted by Master Hsuan Hua through the Sino-American Buddhist Association, is now the abiding place of Ajahn Pasanno and a community of practising samanas, is a 'puññakhetta' - a field of goodness where the fires of greed, hatred and delusion are constantly being extinguished. It is therefore protected by its puñña.
The term 'puñña' (related to 'boon' and 'bounty' in English) is a key reference in Buddhist Asia. It means 'goodness', but is often translated as 'merit' to capture some of the nuances of the term. Because in English we might say: 'that's a good car' or 'you have good handwriting': the term is ethically neutral. Placed upon the object, it signifies my approval but it say anything much about 'goodness'. Puñña however refers to a potency that's present whether anyone acknowledges it or not; it is an immaterial current that moves through the interrelated cosmos; it can be generated and directed by skilful intentions – and it accumulates. To fill in the view a little: the Buddhist cosmos (as was the case with all human worlds prior to the scientific and rational revolution) is an interconnected whole that includes the human psyche with its intentions and associations; the human body; the natural world of sun, rain, trees, and animals; and the supernatural world of guardian and evil spirits, and ghosts. Acts of puñña can have effects that move through this realm. If monarchs rule rightly, the sky gods (devas) are pleased and rain comes on time; if the opposite, or if people are obsessed with passion and greed, then the earth dries up. In the Jātaka tales, every time the Buddha-to-be made a commitment to develop selfless actions (pāramī) the throne of the king of the gods warms up and he flies down to bear witness. In the Buddhist cosmos, acts of puñña are the steps towards harmony, well-being and full awakening.
Sounds absurd? Yes, by and large this cosmos is now largely overturned, and we have a cosmos made of two realities: physical objects as we perceive them through our senses, and our feeling and affective/responsive minds. Other living beings only have such meaning as we give them. Thus a pet is regarded as a quasi-human – often a kind of child – whereas a farmed animal is regarded as a commodity: meat on legs. Trees of course are just lumber – wood to be cut, carved or pulped. Earth is soil to be used and doctored with chemicals, or dirt to be mined. Things only have the value that we give to them, a value determined by monetary considerations. What that view converts the planet, and our fellow-humans, into is the ongoing horror-story of our time. Let alone what it does to those who see things this way: a descent from the grace of empathic and values-based humanity into an exploitative mind-set that is both insatiable and ungrounded. Such beings may have gained 'wealth' but they've lost a place in the living cosmos. In the Buddhist cosmos of gods, humans, animals and demons, this mind-set is called 'the hungry ghost.'
In Thailand, where I entered Buddhist practice, puñña (Thai 'buhn' – pronounced close to 'boon') and its opposite pāpa (Thai 'bahp') support the axis of everyday practice. Far from being metaphysical concepts, they are fundamental essences that fill out the exhortation to uplift and share the good and move away from the bad and guard one's mind from it. The results of good and bad accumulate: that's kamma. True enough; so it's sad that the human genius for corruption converts buhn into spiritual currency. In this corrupt view, the puñña of generosity (= donations to their monasteries) can be used to retrieve a relative from a hell-realm, or to guarantee oneself a fortunate rebirth. Some Buddhist sects regularly teach that the puñña of chanting a mantra with deep dedication will bring around material rewards, or ensure the devotee passes a crucial examination. Shades of medieval Christianity. On account of this I tended to gloss over accepting puñña in its fullest implications.
However, mind-sets change. I now would say that a correct understanding of puñña is the best chance we have of rescuing life on this planet. To take it slowly: puñña is associated with the development of pāramī, or self-transcending intentions and actions. The list of pāramī (bearing in mind the slight awkwardness of their English translation)is: generosity, ethical integrity, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness and equanimity. All these are qualities held to be developed by the Buddha over lifetimes, so that he had the power to resist the host of Mara and attain awakening. For the sceptical mind, what that cosmological sketch translates into is that you don't get free until you've built up the spiritual power to resist the pull of craving, fear, ill-will and ego-tripping. Or as an experienced master will tell you, you don't realize freedom through intellectual understanding or refined attention alone; there are powerful and deluding energies in your sensed cosmos (i.e. the heavens and hells of your psyche) that have to be met and moved through. That takes strength as well as skill, and cultivating pāramī on a daily basis is the work-out that develops that. This isn't just for some future result – the real thing is immediately empowering.
Human examples made this clear to me. At Wat Kiriwong, where I entered monastic life, there were the daily examples: people who rose early in order to put a spoon of rice into my alms bowl were obviously uplifted by that daily event. Every year, some 700 women would leave their homes, wear white and spend ten days in the monastery living under the eight precepts and sleeping on the floor of the sāla in order to meditate, make offerings, listen to Dhamma talks and otherwise 'make puñña (tambuhn)'. It was they who sponsored my acceptance into the bhikkhu sangha; so I, along with what I can offer, am connected to their good will. The fact that this support was anonymous ( I never met any of them let alone exchanged greetings) seemed odd at first, but was accurate: as far as they were concerned, the connection was to the field of pa and that could benefit me, them and anyone else my bhikkhuhood affected. Alignments to 'the field of puñña' are innumerable and commonplace: women went to the monastery, shaved their heads, and meditated for days on end to tambuhn on the occasion of the decease of his majesty King Bhumipol, others commit more fully to live a renunciant life unfettered by the prestige and worldly influence that bhikkhuhood can offer. The puñña of their renunciation gives them strength, calm and clarity.
The greatest human examples of my early years were Ajahn Sumedho (who I met in 1976/7) and Ajahn Chah (who I met in 1979). Ajahn Sumedho radiated a blend of effortless strength and ease at a time when in my case, meditation was neither of these. Ajahn Chah was spiritually massive; his presence would have seemed like a mountain (perhaps he was at times) except it was 'empty' – like unwavering space – and often warm and humorous. To hear of their practices, the deprivation, hardships and challenges – one would have imagined that they would be hard men, void of sympathy. But their practice wasn't about being tough, or special or making any claims; it was all about commitment and self-sacrifice. Ajahn Chah spent eight years wandering tudong through forests and hills with just a bowl and robes – which was tough enough; but his comment was that his major practice began when he settled in the forest that became Wat Nong Pah Pong. There it wasn't just the lack of food or facilities that had to be borne, but on account of his determination as a teacher, he would receive people to deal with their issues for ten to twelve hours per day. Plus give talks, deal with monastery business and so on. Ajahn Sumedho was doing much the same at Cittaviveka and Amaravati. As I came to deal with the mixture of people who turned up at these places, receiving people in their diversity required astuteness and strength, as well as compassion. Some were psychologically damaged, many had major issues, some could barely speak English, some had inflated views of themselves, some were very shy and anxious ... the cantankerous, the hurt, the righteous and the sincere but obscure: I could understand what it meant to receive even a fraction of what these Ajahns had opened to. Solitude in a damp cave drinking plain water seemed like a blissful fantasy by comparison.
The main theme, the cutting edge that summed it all up, was Ajahn Chah's simple motto: 'Patiently endure' ( 'ort tohn''). It carries the firmness of a vow. Its perfection wasn't to adopt a tough teeth-gritting stance, but to insightfully surrender one's time, one's attention, one's mind and even one's life. Most people who knew him speak of his vast kindness. So kindness, generosity and patience: it gives one strength. For the welfare of others? Well, his service as a teacher and guide has benefitted many, but in a way even that vow isn't about getting results. The insight is that neither body, mind, belongings or relatives are 'ours' anyway: self-surrender is an act of truth. So his great generosity was also modest: to not prepare teachings, but offer such Dhamma as arises in context from that self-surrender. That has become the Ajahn Chah standard. The words were often simple, but the timing, the tone and the directness potent. Whoever could receive the teaching (and not everyone did) – that was up to them; a true teacher isn't hung up on results. Not conceiving of self or other, one fully addresses what arises. In this way a master can remain free from success and failure, in a spacious abiding.
I realize in my times of gloom over the state of the world that the dispassion of offering service without expecting a result is what keeps the heart afloat in the chaos of it all. And by not claiming anything one allows gratitude for the ongoing miracles – my own list (after being given robes and bowl and meeting Ajahn Sumedho) includes the gift of a forest that made Cittaviveka possible; the guardians and helpers who seem to turn up whenever I've been on pilgrimage; and the countless offerings and support I receive when I take on teaching or writing on Dhamma. People are in fact eager to offer and serve: puñña is not some superstition or cultural myth, there is a deep human need to generate and dwell in it. It brings us into our truth.
For me, the crucial pāramī is resolution, to make a vow. This firms up and amplifies the rest. Recently at Cittaviveka we have decided to firm up our request for donors to not bring plastic bottles of water to the monastery ('more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050' is the prediction) by not putting such offerings out for the meal or for public occasions – to take the stuff out of circulation. I've determined to not drink bottled water wherever tap water is available on the same day. So dear reader, now is a good time! If we all give up something, some accessory, some convenience, some habit; if we commit to the good and the true and make it beautiful; if we bear with the messy and the irritating in each other and be a source of refuge – something far-reaching can warm up. Maybe we could save the cosmos. Why not? This is the opportunity that humans have; it's a lot better than life as a ghost.